15 Aug 2020

Downgrading Education

Post written by: Erin Walcon

So, there has been a lot of anger about the A-Level results which were released on Thursday of this week. Many students from ‘under-achieving’ schools found that their predicted results, mock exam results and teacher’s recommended grades had been downgraded by an algorithm which predicted much lower outcomes – this was a shock and a surprise to many young people across the UK – 40% of results overall were reduced and statistics are showing that lower income communities, schools and young people are being disproportionately impacted.

Many people are baffled and stunned by the injustice of this – and there has rightly been an outry and a sense of outrage that these young people have already been asked to navigate enough challenges in the last 6 months without further unfairness being heaped upon their next steps.

Personally, I am finding myself a little numb in all of this.

Anger is not the first emotion which I am feeling. I’m sat here today, trying to figure out why. I am having a quiet moment to look inward, and ponder.

Here it comes.

Upon reflection, I think it is because I have been very angry for a very long time.

In particular, about our education system and how it disadvantages young people who may not be from white, middle class, well-educated families where verbal-linguistic skills are nurtured from a very young age. As a former secondary teacher, I daily watched how children from lower income households, children from diverse backgrounds, children with different (and amazing strengths) like embodiment, musicality, kinesthetic skills, emotional intelligence, and a sense of humour were profoundly mis-served by the systems of education.

As a Drama teacher, I could sometimes help to create an alternate safe space for some of these children, where these different skills were valued. As an English teacher, I tried to work consciously and thoughtfully to help students develop the codes they needed to survive and dismantle such systems. (Listen to Lisa Delpit talk about her research in this here.) This was harder. I’m not sure I always did it well. Certainly, I was not always successful, but there were enough moments of hope to feel like it was possible to make a difference.

I was angry before.

I have been angry since I first sat in Zaher Wahab‘s classroom when I first did my teacher training. This woke me up. It took an excellent teacher to do it. It made me angry. It was a deep, simmering, useful, productive anger.

Yes, these A-Level results are brutally unfair.

Yes, there is clear and palpable injustice here. Concrete evidence. We can reach out and touch it.

But this isn’t a new thing.

That algorithm developed by Ofqual and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is just a further symptom of a much bigger disease – underfunded and undersupported schools working in areas of socio-economic disadvantage were already losing a war.

Students with diverse backgrounds, diverse strengths, diverse needs, and electric awake minds were already being squashed by a punitive and restrictive curriculum which actively worked to eliminate opportunities for embodied or emotional learning or critical consciousness. You only have to look at the changes which have been made to the drama curriculum over the last decade here in the UK to see how the study of live performance has become increasingly ‘academicified’, eliminating opportunities for students on GCSE and BTEC courses to learn via practice and increasing the written requirements.

I have ranted before about the decimating impact of the EBACC initiative and its subsequent reduction in creative subjects in UK secondary schools, particularly music and drama. In South Devon alone, we’ve witnessed the number of full-time drama and music teachers decreased by nearly 50% in the last five years. In this climate, exams become the only route to any ‘qualification’ worth having, and students, teachers, parents and educational systems are faced with an absence of alternate models to map, research, and reflect their progression.

In my decades of experience, I have witnessed a shrinking of arts provision within the curriculum, at the same time mental health and self-harm behaviours are spiralling with young people. I increasingly see exam pressure and reduced art provision as key contributing factors with the young people we work with in our evening sessions. The situation is at crisis point.

In my long-term work within school settings, I continue to see an absence of meaningful experiential learning opportunities based on project-based models. Instead, teachers are unable to follow pedagogically rich/sound approaches which would prioritise experiential or practice-based learning and instead have to ‘teach to the test’ in order to get students through exams.

And layer all of that on top of my awareness that the exam culture which generates these ‘results’ for pupils is deeply problematic pedagogically. Plenty has been written about the ways in which exams are not a meaningful or adequate way of measuring real learning, and how exam structures privilege the privileged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged. Exams are not a measure of someone’s intelligence. They are an excellent measure of how well someone has played a very particular hoop-jumping game that they had already been born to win. They are also an excellent money-maker for large companies who reap profit by selling their curriculum packs to ‘test’ how well children perform to an artifically constructed set of criteria. They are part of a business-model of education. Follow the money. Note the profit margins.

Amongst all of that, swimming as best they possibly can, are beautiful, sparkling, awake, thoughtful young people. Somehow, they survive it, still. Sometimes they even thrive.

But the epidemic of mental health concerns we see amongst our young people is not accidental. It is a product of these kinds of systems… of them being asked to participate in a system of education which does not serve them well.

Teachers know this stuff. They have been saying it for years. They are routinely and regularly not listened to, as government policies continue to spew out with what seems to be an active and rampant disregard for educator expertise and knowledge.

Many teachers have left the profession over these very tensions. I am one of these. Some teachers manage to stay long-term in spite of this injustice – and these people are heroes of a particular kind of epic courage. Serious heroes.

So that anger – underlying, tectonic, foundational, was already there.

Enter A-Level results.

I appreciate other people’s outrage about this and I want to applaud their vocalness. But I am concerned that if we fixate upon a particular political party trying to find a way to make logical scores spit out of a machine for children who are surviving a pandemic, we are missing the point.

And the point is this.

Our children were already surviving a deeply unjust reality.

Before Covid.

Let’s talk about that one.

Let’s talk about a radical evolution of education.

Let’s talk about how palpable injustice and anger are useful in opening a door to a wider critical consciousness about systems which need to change.

Let’s talk about how we unpick, unpin, unpack the ways in which children, young people and teachers are dis-served by the existing education system.

Let’s vision something better. Starting now.

Project-based learning.

Embodied Literacy.

Emotional intelligence and empathy as key learning outcomes.

Tolerance and critical consciousness about privilege and difference as the top curriculum item.

Anti-racist and anti-colonialist readings and learnings and live encounters.

Arts infused throughout, as a way of making all subjects alive and vibrant, as a way of making meaning of this chaos we are all going through.

Portfolio assessment. Alternate assessment. Differentiated learning. Smaller classes. Better paid teachers. A curriculum which honours teacher expertise instead of elected officials’ whims.

Folks, this stuff is not rocket science.

It would change everything.

This is how you change EVERYTHING.

You fix education systems.

This is how our future gets brighter.

There are wise experts out there who know what education should look like.

We need to listen to them.

We need to elect officials who have backgrounds in education.

We need to build brave pilot models and fund them long term.

We need to believe this can and should and must be better.

For our children.

I am not angry about a downgraded A Level result this week. I am angry that those young people have to sit those A Levels in the first place. I am angry that our education system is being seen as a business model. I am angry that we ever thought we could find a way to measure their infinite potentials.

We have so much more to learn, all together. Let’s stop measuring each other and start opening up to what we might not have discovered yet.

Let’s start at the foundations. Brick by brick.